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Howie Beck | Hollow (Easy!Tiger)
There are a lot of sensitive boys around these days. Bruised by the sexual revolution, the Harcourts and the Hawksleys pluck at their guitars like heartstrings. But these six-string Romeos suffer with a wink, as if the bleeding heart were just another seductive tactic in a cynical and dangerous liaison. It's irony in the soul. Howie Beck brings a different mythology. The cover of 'Hollow', his second album, shows an inky print of an apartment block. It's late, but there's one set of lights blazing: the solitary musician is working into the night to finish his record. The liner photos show the troubled songwriter walking, head down, with only his guitar and shadow for company. And once the music starts, you can hear how much he means it. The title track comes first, an economical 83-second overture. Its skeletal acoustics and word-in-your-ear vocal introduce the album's overriding themes of betrayal and deceit. "All you see is all I'm meant to be," he sings. "You're not what you appear to be / You're so hollow." Equally concise is Baby Plays Around On Me, one of several pieces underpinned by the kind of slow bossa nova so favoured by mid-60s McCartney. Here, however, the lyric has been infected by Lennon's vicious and emotional pessimism. For such a musically restrained record, there's a lot of spite on 'Hollow'. It seethes under the surface of Serves You Right, a song about retribution for a terrible, unspecified crime. Occasionally, Beck can dish it out in the manner of Costello at his fiercest; What You Found even chugs along with the same busted organ boogie of The Attractions. Despite its misanthropic heart, however, 'Hollow' is consistently lifted by melodic invention and the variety of its musical flourishes. Each track introduces a different style of playing. There's the Isleys-flavoured solo on Baby Plays Around On Me, or the way Beck makes his guitar gently weep on Maybe I Belong. The track also features the kind of layered harmonies so characteristic of Elliott Smith. In fact, Hollow is every bit as strong as Smith's XO â?? it just cost less to make. That it was squeezed from such meagre resources â?? recorded largely in his Toronto home with auteur Beck as writer, musician and producer â?? is testament to an almighty (and bloody-minded) talent. The Chance is Gone, one of the few tracks with guest players, is a slow-burning masterpiece of pedal steel and strings, giving the country ballad a graceful weightlessness. The track literally slides out of reach in a stunning fade-out that lasts over a minute and a half. After ten bitter, bruised and beautiful songs, 'Hollow' closes with The One You Wanted. He sounds half-dead from disappointment, as if he barely dares to hope or trust again. A slow, descending chord sequence mirrors the lyric and winds this sleepy album into dreams before rising to a sudden crescendo. Where 'Hollow' started with an overture, it ends with a rousing finale and something like resolution. In its final moments, the haunted mood of the record evaporates, without any sense of compromise. Howie Beck's 1996 debut 'Pop and Crash' garnered comparisons with Nick Drake. Whilst there's something of 'Pink Moon' in the stark intimacy of 'Hollow', Beck's voice is broken and winded, his playing charmingly clunky. These things rescue the album from the pristine perfection of the Nick Drake myth, making Howie Beck more human. Like Bill Callahan, this beautiful misanthrope has managed to concoct a medicine from the most limited resources and 'Hollow' is the bitter pill that can make you feel better.
CWAS #9 - Winter 2002